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How did we get here? / June 06, 2018
What a difference a couple of weeks makes: Go back that far in time and not many people had Virginia’s 5th District on their radar as a battleground for control of Congress in November. Was the 5th a fringe pick for a flippable district, one that could change hues from Republican red to Democratic blue? Sure. Was VA-5 high on anyone’s list of mid-term toss-ups? No.

Campaigns this far out from Election Day can be hard to keep track of, so let’s recap: on May 5, former journalist-turned-politician Leslie Cockburn of Rappahannock County secured the Democratic Party nomination to face off against Republican incumbent Tom Garrett in the general election. Garrett, a former Buckingham state senator and member of the far-right Congressional Freedom Caucus, was the undisputed Republican standard bearer and clear favorite for re-election. That’s despite Democratic gains in special elections around the country throughout 2018. Democratic candidates have been outperforming their vote totals compared to when you-know-who headed up the Republican presidential ticket eons … er, almost two long years ago.

Donald Trump is now president, he’s unpopular despite a reasonably good economy and no shooting wars abroad (trade wars, those we’ll see about), and as they say on Wall Street, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Based on these factors alone, Virginia’s 5th Congressional District could be considered nominally ripe for an upset.

Still: Trump won the 5th District by 11 points in 2016. Garrett won by 17 points over Jane Dittmar, the Democratic candidate running that same year. Even as Republicans were getting their clocks cleaned in 2017 around Virginia, GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gilliespie carried the 5th District by nine points. It seemed beyond a shadow of a doubt that it would take a big blue wave to roust Garrett from office this fall.

That was the thinking two weeks ago, anyway.

As everyone knows by now, Garrett is out of the race: he’s leaving politics to combat alcoholism, something Garrett revealed publicly last Monday after a rough week in the media spotlight. It started with a May 22 report in Politico, which detailed Garrett’s conversations with associates suggesting he might drop his re-election bid. The congressman soon called a press conference to declare he was all-in for November’s race (although he conceded the main thrust of the Politico report was correct.) One day later, Politico published yet another article, this one extremely damaging to Garrett’s reputation: citing unnamed ex-aides, the report portrayed Garrett and his wife, Flanna, as abusive, quick-to-anger bosses who demanded that staffers carry out all kinds of menial tasks, or worse: the headline-grabber was the revelation that employees cleaned up smelly deposits left behind by the Garretts’ dog, Sophie. Poopgate is not a scandal most politicians want associated with their names.

After all this, Garrett bowed out with a candid admission about his struggles with alcoholism. To be sure, substance abuse is not something that excuses abusive behavior towards others, but it’s definitely something deserving of our empathy and support for the individual as he or she battles demons of addiction and abuse. Godspeed to Tom Garrett; may only good things lie ahead for him with his health, his family and his future. I won’t miss Garrett’s hard-line representation in Congress, but I’d never wish him any personal ill will.

So: Garrett’s departure meant Republicans suddenly had a decision on their hands, and Saturday we saw that process play out at Nelson County High School, where the 5th District Republican Committee met to choose a replacement candidate. Who and what is the 5th District Republican Committee, you ask? Good question — the committee consists of 37 local activists and district officials who no one pays any attention to under ordinary circumstances (this is especially true of party heavyweights higher up the food chain).

Suddenly, however, these activists — local GOP unit chairs in the counties and cities that make up the sprawling 5th District — were Very Important People. Generally, being a county or city party chairman confers the same level of glamour one associates with a bucket of spit, but on Saturday at least, the choice of a new Republican candidate rested entirely in the hands of only 37 people. What could possibly go wrong? In a word, anything.

Politics is driven by luck and accident as much as anything, and Saturday serves as an excellent reminder of this. The good news for Leslie Cockburn coming out of the weekend is that she will now face a candidate in the general election with next-to-no name recognition (like herself), no advantages of incumbency and no organized campaign to speak of (yet), which is not how matters would have gone if Tom Garrett had stayed in the race. (Although to be fair, Garrett had done very little to ramp up a re-election campaign himself.) The bad news for Cockburn is that her luck could have been so, so much better: Republicans came within a whisker of choosing a nominee who would have tipped the balance in favor of Democrats on the sole basis of her laughable reputation.

Alas, no such fun for Democrats in the fall: the 5th District committee picked the “reasonable” candidate, Denver Riggleman of Nelson County.

I don’t know much about Mr. Riggleman, other than what I read: he ran a brief campaign for governor in 2017 that went nowhere, and last week he was among the first to jump into the contest to replace Garrett. Riggleman is operator if Silverback Distillery, which churns out bourbons, whiskeys and other spirits (no irony there with Garrett’s reasons for leaving Congress). Like Garrett, he promises to join the Freedom Caucus if elected. The House Freedom Caucus is the most intemperate, intransigent, extremist force in Congress, driving even mainstream Republicans to distraction and rage, so if you believe adding another member to its ranks is a step for the good, then I guess Riggleman’s your man. It’s pretty clear most people don’t really consider extreme partisanship to be a good thing, so maybe Riggleman can explain why rational folks should believe otherwise.

Still, Republicans aren’t much (if any) worse off with Riggleman on the ticket than they’d be with Garrett. They’re certainly in better shape than if the 5th District Committee had gone with the runner-up in the race, Cynthia Dunbar of Bedford. (She lost on the fourth ballot, 19-18, after taking a big lead in the committee’s early voting.) If Dunbar’s name is vaguely familiar, it’s because she was in the thick of contention just a few weeks ago for the Republican nomination in the 6th Congressional District, where longtime Rep. Bob Goodlatte is retiring. Yup, three weeks ago Dunbar was in Harrisonburg angling to run for Congress. On Saturday, she popped up in Evingston to try again in the 5th. She’s the Carpetbagger Candidate from Planet Where’s Waldo; this was actually her third run for Congress, having competed and lost years ago in her former home in Texas.

Dunbar is what one kindly might call a real piece of work. She made her name back in the day as a member of the Texas State Board of Education, a perch from which she sought to kick Thomas Jefferson off the World History curriculum of Enlightenment philosophers. And how would such a selling point go over in Charlottesvile? (And everywhere else in Thomas Jefferson’s 5th District?) Since moving to Virginia, Dunbar has taught at Liberty University law school, expressed radical views on Christian hegemony in civil society (she has argued, no lie, that public schools are unconstitutional) and basically carved out a reputation for herself as a religious fruitcake. With no insult intended to religion or fruitcakes.

This carpet-bagging, Constitution-shredding, Straight Outta Gilead candidate almost seized a place on the ballot in November, which would have evened the odds (or better) of a Democratic victory in the fall. Surprising as it may seem, it actually was Southside’s delegation of local unit chairs who headed off this disaster for the GOP. Wally Hudson, the Mecklenburg County party chair, was among the Southside reps who denied Dunbar the nomination. (By the way, there was a local candidate who put his name in contention: Claksville’s Harold Gielow, who expressed interest in the nomination prior to Saturday’s meeting in Nelson. Gielow didn’t make the initial cut of candidates — six names were nominated on the first vote and two were eliminated right off the bat, including Fauquier County Del. Michael Webert — but there’s nothing that says Gielow was any less qualified than the rest. He might have been more qualified. As politically dialed-in, well, that’s a different story.)

Anyway, returning to the original point: Is the 5th District of Virginia a potential battleground? The answer remains the same as it was going into the week: Yes, but only under favorable circumstances that may or may not come together in November. Republicans lost their sitting congressman and gained an unknown commodity, someone who may prove to be a better candidate than Garrett, or may not. For the Democrats, Leslie Cockburn gets to talk about stuff that matters — jobs, health care, a fairer economy for everyone — and she will have the smarts and the money and the political winds at her back as she makes her case. Will it be enough to flip the 5th? After this week, all that we can say for certain in politics is that nothing is certain in politics.

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